Getting Work Done: Cosmetic Surgery as Constraint, as Commodity, as Commonplace
Aesthetic surgery is simultaneously an ancient and a distinctly modern practice. The desire to change what our bodies look like is not new, and the techniques of modern cosmetic surgery are startlingly similar to surgical procedures completed in ancient India and Greece. Yet, cosmetic surgery as it is currently practiced by doctors, consumed by patients, and pictured in the cultural imagination is entirely contemporary. Cosmetic surgery has become a prominent facet of popular and consumer culture. In certain ways, cosmetic surgery is another commodity like travel or cable television or wine that is consumed under the guise of increasing one’s quality of life. As a product bought and sold in the medical marketplace, cosmetic surgery is increasingly dissociated from its technological kin, reconstructive surgery, but cosmetic surgery shares a deeply intertwined history with surgery explicitly focused on repairing, as opposed to improving, appearance. The ﬁrst recorded account of aesthetic reconstruction written in approximately 600 BCE India describes
the process through which ﬂaps of skin were cut from the cheek and forehead and attached to the nose or ear in order to reconstruct noses and earlobes of those who had been ‘disﬁgured’ through accident or reprimand (Chambers and Ray, 2009). Greek physicians attempted procedures at the beginning of the millennium, but gradually such medicine was denounced by the Catholic Church on the grounds that aesthetic intervention interfered with Divine Will. Yet, the desire to surgically alter bodily appearance did not disappear entirely. In the sixteenth century, an Italian surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi published the ﬁrst book exclusively focused on plastic surgery, and a 1794 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine described the ‘curious’ work of nose reconstruction, a procedure particularly useful in the age of syphilis, to the Western world. While initial eﬀorts were almost entirely focused on repair, the late nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of surgery which employed reconstructive techniques for cosmetic purposes. At the turn of the twentieth century, people experimented with wax injections in order to contour the body, though given the tendency of free ﬂoating wax to migrate the risks most notably cancer clearly outweighed the beneﬁts (Gilman, 1999). To be sure though, World War I marks a turning point in the history of aesthetic surgery. Men returning from the war were disﬁgured in large numbers, and surgeons began to develop procedures that they hoped would help men integrate into their post war lives (Haiken, 1999). Increased military expenditure on developing reconstructive techniques provided the necessary groundwork for medicine to establish a cosmetic repertoire.